Rhode Island: Roger Williams National Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Roger Williams founded the settlement he called Providence on Narragansett Bay in 1636 after he was expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony for insisting that magistrates had no authority to punish people for certain religious violations.

Site Office

Roger Williams National Memorial

282 North Main Street

Providence, RI 02903

ph.: (401) 521-7266

Web site: www.nps.gov/rowi/

Roger Williams was one of the most significant Puritan leaders to come to America in the seventeenth century. An advocate of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and fair negotiation with indigenous Americans, Williams found himself at odds with most other Puritan leaders in North America. His refusal to compromise his principles for personal gain and security brought him scorn from the Puritan establishment, yet his legacy to the eighteenth century Founders of the United States was far greater than that of his tormentors.

Early Life

The year of Roger Williams’s birth is uncertain, but most historians believe he was born in the Smithfield district of northwest London in 1603. Smithfield was a thriving center of trade at the time. Williams’s father, James, was a successful merchant (tailor) and his mother, Alice (Pemberton) Williams, improved the family’s financial circumstances through several properties that she owned. Thus, while not wealthy, the family lived in comfortable surroundings.

Almost nothing is known of Roger Williams’s early education, but it is reported that he showed a great interest in religion from a tender age. This is scarcely surprising, as the Smithfield district was alive with Puritan activity. The Puritans were a large “radical” faction within the Anglican Church (Church of England). They believed in the primacy of Scripture over clerical authority and in informal worship–beliefs that were unacceptable to the Anglican hierarchy. They also held controversial political views that included advocacy of limits on the influence of the Crown. During the time of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) the number of Puritans had greatly increased, as the queen followed a mostly benign policy toward them. In the 1580’s some Puritans, led by Robert Browne, insisted that all Puritans break from the Anglican Church and form a separate organization. These Puritans became known as Brownists or Separatists. There were large numbers of Separatists in Smithfield, and Roger Williams attended their meetings as a teenager. Among the many issues discussed was support for Puritan colonists in North America. It is clear that these meetings had a lasting influence on Williams.

In 1617, when he was about fourteen, Williams was employed as a stenographer by Sir Edward Coke, England’s most famous jurist of the time. Coke, a staunch defender of the rights of Parliament, considered Williams a protégé. Through Coke’s intervention, Williams was admitted to a boys’ preparatory school in 1621. In 1624 he was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge, and in 1627 he received his degree. He then began a stint as private chaplain to Sir William Masham in Essex. Through this position he met many prominent Puritan leaders, including Oliver Cromwell.

On December 15, 1629, Williams married Mary Barnard, a marriage that eventually produced six children. In December of 1630 Williams fulfilled a major ambition when he and Mary sailed for America, arriving at Nantasket on February 5, 1631.

Trouble in Massachusetts

Williams’s first five years on American soil found him constantly at loggerheads with local Puritan leaders. Between 1631 and 1635 Williams held several clerical positions in Boston, Salem, Plymouth (a Separatist colony), and then Salem again. In each location Williams angered Puritan officials by stating views that were considered dangerous. His notion that all New England Puritan congregations should break from the Anglican Church was unsettling enough, but to this Williams was now adding that there should be a separation of church and state, that the king (Charles I) had no right to grant land that belonged to the Indians, and that magistrates overstepped their authority when they punished people for certain religious “crimes.” Not surprisingly, he either left or was sacked from every position he held during this five-year period. Williams, however, did not stop expressing his views in clerical meetings and public gatherings, or through his many written commentaries.

In 1635 colonial officials in Massachusetts, exasperated by Williams’s obduracy and alarmed that he had attracted some loyal followers, decided to take action. On April 30 he was brought before the Massachusetts General Court on charges that he had wrongfully denied the power of magistrates to punish anyone guilty of violating the first four Commandments. The court determined on October 9, 1635, that Williams should be banished from Massachusetts for “new and dangerous opinions against the power of magistrates.”

Providence

Banned from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams moved with his followers in April, 1636, to a desolate parcel of land owned by the Narragansett tribe. After negotiating with tribal leaders, he purchased the land and established a settlement that he called Providence. True to his conviction that the colonists must appreciate Indian culture and rights, he learned the Narragansett language and urged his followers to create farming and trading ties with the tribe. He had hoped to convert the Narragansetts to Christianity. The Providence settlement, while enduring many difficulties, succeeded to the point where Williams, in 1642, returned to England to seek a colonial charter. That colony would eventually be known as Rhode Island.

Williams spent two years in England during a tumultuous time in the relationship between Crown and Parliament. In the year that Williams arrived, a civil war began involving the forces of Charles I and those of the House of Commons, the latter organized by the great Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. Obtaining a charter in such unstable circumstances proved difficult, but with the help of Sir Henry Vane, a principal adviser to Cromwell, Parliament granted a charter to Williams in 1643. The document essentially allowed Williams to establish the governance of the colony in any way he wished.

In March, 1644, Williams returned to America as “chief officer” of a democratic colony that was to include the scattered settlements in Narragansett. He intended that freedom of conscience would be rigorously protected. This had been the theme of his best known treatise, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, which he wrote in 1643 and published in 1644.

Challenges

Williams soon discovered that organization of the colony was going to be difficult and would require some time. There were divisions among those who had settled in the region since 1636, and not all were willing to accept the plans Williams put forward. The followers of Anne Hutchinson, who also had been thrown out of Massachusetts, had ideas somewhat different from Williams’s. Hutchinson angered Massachusetts leaders by insisting that the Holy Spirit dwelled in and guided every person. In 1638 she and her followers established a settlement at Portsmouth on Narragansett land.

In addition to some dissent within the colony, there was a constant barrage of criticism toward Williams from Puritans outside the Narragansett region. John Cotton, a prominent Boston clergyman, spoke and wrote vitriolically against Williams’s ideas of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. Indeed, Providence received no support at all from surrounding colonies. Those who settled in Narragansett territory were considered dangerous heretics and even criminals.

Part of Williams’s difficulty lay in the vague nature of the 1643 charter. He decided to return to England in 1651 (the civil war was over and Oliver Cromwell had created a Puritan commonwealth) to renew and reconfirm the original charter. As a result, the boundaries for the colony were now more clearly defined. While in England, Williams made an acquaintance with the great Puritan poet and leader John Milton. Williams was well known and highly regarded by English Puritans, particularly for his close association with American Indians. Milton knew of Williams’s work in New England and encouraged him to continue to follow his conscience.

In 1654 Williams returned to America with his “improved” charter and served as first president of the Rhode Island colony from 1654 to 1657. The difficulties of cohesiveness and organization remained. By this time Rhode Island had become a refuge for outcast religious factions. A large number of Quakers and various Anabaptist sects poured into the colony. Williams, for a time, seemed swayed by anabaptism (a belief in adult baptism and the absolute adherence to Scripture), but in the end he remained faithful to the Calvinist theology he had followed since his youth.

The Quakers presented Williams with a problem that somewhat tarnished his reputation as a defender of freedom of conscience. The Quakers were pacifists and refused to take up arms in defense of the colony. Williams entered into a long, and often acrimonious, debate with the Quakers over this issue. In 1657 Williams stepped down as president of Rhode Island and gradually drifted from prominence. He continued to serve in various public offices wherever he was needed. His greatest contribution after 1657 was in his ability to converse with New England’s Indian leaders. They trusted and respected Williams more than any other colonial spokesman. On many occasions his negotiating skills during contentious times preserved the peace.

Williams was not able to prevent the serious Indian assault of 1675-1676 known as King Philip’s War. King Philip was a Wanpanoag tribal leader who convinced the Narragansetts and the Nipmucks to participate in a coalition against the New England colonies. Appropriately enough, Philip first attacked a Quaker settlement at Swansea, Rhode Island. Before the war ended there were heavy losses on both sides, and at least ten towns were totally destroyed. Although he had staunchly supported Indian rights and culture, Williams fought against the Indians on this occasion. The war set back the economic development of Rhode Island and the rest of New England for at least a decade.

From 1636 on, Williams earned his living principally from farming and trade with the Narragansetts. For most of his life, and especially during his last years, he was near poverty. His spirit remained undaunted, and he continued to refer to himself as a “Seeker,” that is, one who is devoted to seeking truth and salvation. By the end of his life Williams had fallen into such obscurity that the date of his death, like that of his birth, is uncertain. It is believed that he died sometime during the first three months of 1683.

The Roger Williams National Memorial is on the lot of the original settlement, which is now a park. The site provides historical exhibits and self-guided walking tours of the College Hill Historic District.

For Further Information
  • Catton, Bruce, and William B. Catton. The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Years. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. A highly readable and interesting account of colonial America.
  • Chupack, Henry. Roger Williams. New York:Twayne, 1969. A brief, compact, and accurate biography.
  • Ernst, James F. Roger Williams, New England Firebrand. New York: Macmillan, 1932. Captures the excitement and turmoil Williams brought to the colonies.
  • Garrett, John. Roger Williams, Witness Beyond Christendom, 1603-1683. New York: Macmillan, 1970. An interesting account of the meshing of Williams’s religious and political ideas.
  • Gilpin, Clark. The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Examines the origins and impact of Roger Williams’s Christian views. Primarily for academic readers.
  • Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. New York: Atheneaum, 1970. Essential reading. Written by one of America’s most respected historians, it provides an understanding of the importance of Williams’s ideas for future Americans.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967. Thoroughly and ably discusses the implications of Williams’s position on the relationship of church and state.
  • Polishook, Irwin H. Roger Williams, John Cotton, and Religious Freedom. . . . Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Discusses the controversy between Williams and Cotton over the issue of liberty of conscience.
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